Zürich’s Declining Shark Population

By Zaliko Ugulava & Ege Çınar Merdin

Trash cans are not a matter of popular debate in most parts of the world – but that seems to be different on the clean, clean streets of Zurich. When a successor to the well-loved „Abfallhai“ design was announced – after months of research and development – in 2021, controversy ensued. 

Early design of the Abfallhai

It was back in 2002 that Zurich’s waste management authority held an international competition. The winner was set to receive a government contract for 500 trash cans. The competition attracted pitches from 80 designers and teams. During the trials, the Abfallhai -or „Littershark“, if translated directly – captured peoples’ attention for the first time. Unlike the other designs, this one had a single, mouthlike hole and a sloping roof reminiscent of a fin – leading one of Zurich’s main newspapers, the Tagesanzeiger, to dub it the “cheeky shark”. After reading that article, the designer settled on the name Littershark. His design was a hit. It received both the Reddot design award and the German design award, it also was subsequently exported to other European cities such as Vienna, Berlin and Barcelona.

An Abfallhai in its natural habitat

The people of Zurich, where it all began, take special pride in their Littersharks, or as Marcel Strebel – one of its designers – put it: “Trash bins are an emotional subject”.  In tidy Zurich, they certainly seem to be. When the city’s waste management authority announced that the Littersharks, which require repair or are broken beyond repair, were set to be replaced by the new „Züri-Kübel 110 Liter“, many news outlets were interested in the decision. Dramatic headlines such as “Zurich puts an end to world famous Littershark” and „Littershark: Zurich’s cult bucket is threatened with extinction” appeared. The Swiss national broadcaster even reported that Zurich was „killing the Littershark“ – and  questions were asked about how necessary this change really was. 

According to Littershark designer Marcel Strebel, the answer is clear: not at all:

“The greatest point of criticism was the size of the hole, but we offered the city a bigger design with a correspondingly bigger hole, and they rejected it. I see no other advantages in the new design. I guess the new management wants to change up a few things even if it’s not necessary, but our Littershark still has its supporters in the government – the city president for example. We designed the trash can by testing it with the people who interact with it the most, binmen – and we are still very proud of our product, regardless of the authority’s decision.”  

When asked about the reason for the change, Tobias Nussbaum – spokesperson for Zurich’s waste management authority (Entsorgung + Recycling Zurich), explained: “

We wanted a design for which we have the rights and to reduce the cost of our cans.” He has also said that the reason why the iconic Littershark is being replaced is that the Züri-Kübel 110 Liter is easier to use and – crucially – that the new can’s bigger hole is better suited for bulky takeaway packaging. He also mentioned that there had been close cooperation with the city’s binmen in the design process.

Züri-Kübel 110 Liter

One striking difference is that the new can has a flat top that people can put bottles on top of, so the bin men don’t have to bend over and pick them up from next to the trash can, as was the case with the Littershark. It also has the ashtray on top which is, apparently, more intuitive to use and easier to empty.

Careful readers might have noticed that both Marcel Strebel and Tobias Nussbaum talked about durability and ease of use. So, we took to the clean, clean streets in search of the people who interact with these bins the most and the ultimate judges of the designs: Zurich’s binmen. 

They were quite happy with the Littersharks that are still in service but had nothing to say about the new cans which are in limited use right now.

“The Littershark is super good, is a breeze to use and very durable,” said Felix Kamber, the man who empties the Littershark on the Rämibuhl education campus

I have no complaints or issues about the Littershark,” said a binman. He than kindly demonstrated how the Littershark is emptied, by firstly unlocking the front door of the can with a special key, then easily emptying the ashtray and changing the trash bag inside of the shark.

Trashcan users also seem to be skeptical about the change. In our unrepresentative online survey, which attracted 232 votes in just two days, the Littershark got 70% of the votes for the better trashcan.

So, if you’re planning to visit Zurich in the future and would like to see the retired Littershark, you will still be able to do so – by visiting  the design Museum, where it is already a prized exhibit.

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